For the still-burgeoning LA Lions, earning national recognition at its absolute peak speaks volumes about the five-year-old program’s vision to architect a tried-and-true developmental option for hockey-playing girls on the West Coast.
That watermark moment came last month when the club’s top 12U group was billed the top 12U Tier I (AAA) girls team in the entire country by MyHockeyRankings.com, which is widely considered the go-to measuring stick when it comes to labeling teams’ strength across North America.
It’s an accolade that’s well-deserved, says the team’s head coach, Andrew Stone.
“It’s still early in the season, but receiving the No. 1 ranking in the country is a great accomplishment and a huge honor for these girls; they should be proud of their achievement and success,” said Stone. “These girls, though, are incredibly humble and grounded, so they realize they need to continue working on their skills and hockey comprehension if they want to stay on top of the rankings.”
The recognition came a week after the Lions’ flawless performance at September’s Harvard University Showcase where the team went 5-0 against a handful of powerhouse programs on the East Coast. The weekend included 7-1 victories over both the then-No. 3- and -No. 9-ranked 12U AAA teams in the nation.
“They were excited for that opportunity and embraced the challenge,” said Stone. “As a relatively new club, they understood they might be underestimated by some of these premier programs, but certainly gained the respect and praise of their opponents throughout the weekend.”
While in Boston, the girls were also afforded the privilege of meeting with Boston College sophomore defenseman and Olympic gold medalist Cayla Barnes - also a former Los Angeles Jr. King - and her team on campus. They watched the NCAA Division I squad practice and were given a tour of the hockey and athletic facilities by Barnes herself.
“Cayla is not only a role model, but also a hero to many of our players,” said Stone, who coached the Southern California native when she played for the Jr. Kings. “Her kind generosity and the personable way she interacted with the girls is something they’ll never forget.”
In between the Lions’ local league schedule - they’re playing a 10-game exhibition slate in the Southern California Hockey Association (SCAHA) as a 12U AA team - the club will also participate in the Anaheim Lady Ducks’ Fall Festival over Thanksgiving Weekend and San Jose Jr. Sharks’ Girls/Women’s MLK Weekend Tournament in January. The team has taken home the championship banner at both events every year since its inaugural 2015-16 season.
In December, the 2007/08 birth-year team will head to Chicago for another AAA showcase where it’ll again be tested against some of the preeminent programs in the country, including Chicago Mission, Little Caesars, Team Illinois and the Chicago Young Americans.
“They’re incredibly talented hockey players, but it’s been their willingness to work together and continue to grow as a team, their resilience and ability to overcome adversity on the ice and their supportive and positive attitude that’s been most impressive for me as a coach,” said Stone. “These are competitive and independent-minded girls, but when they come together to play they always do what’s best for the team.”
The team’s roster includes (many of the girls play both forward and defense): forwards Kylie Atzert, Lincoln Brown, Keirstyn Camiolo, Violet Dittman, Mackenzie Fitch, Mackenzie Helms, Ella Johnson, Brooklyn O’Brien, Reese Negus, Savanna Stamp, Addison Tremel and Lily Winckler; defensemen Lily Andreassi, Jaqueline Gasseau, Alicia Gomez, Brianna Gruber, Lola Macuiba and Destiny Reed; and goaltenders Danielle Lerma and Morgan Stickney.
And as women’s hockey continues to reach new heights on a national scale, Stone wouldn’t be surprised to see more than a few of his talented, hard-working girls earn bigger and better on-ice opportunities in the not-too-distant future.
“I’m confident as many as 10-12 of our local girls have an excellent chance of playing Division I college hockey, and I'm sure that number will continue to grow as our program evolves,” said Stone, who also credits the Lady Ducks and Jr. Sharks for helping fuel the growth of girls hockey on the West Coast. “In the more immediate future, I think this team has the lofty-but-reachable goal of competing for a 14U AAA national championship over the next few years.”
In addition to the Lions’ 12U AA1 team, the club is also icing squads this season at 16U AA (exhibition schedule), 14U AA (exhibition), 12U AA2 (SCAHA schedule in the 12U B division), 10U (SCAHA in 10U B Flight II), 8U B (SCAHA) and 6U (learn to play).
Stone praises the tireless efforts of Lions president Daryl Evans, general manager Tori Pizzuto and founder/board member Becki Winckler, as well as the support from Jr. Kings president Steve Yovetich, executive director Kelly Sorensen and general manager of hockey operations Nick Vachon, for helping elevate the entire program to a brand-new level in short time.
“We believe our 12U team is only the beginning of what’s to come,” said the coach. “It’s a great group of girls to help establish our place among the country’s elite and exemplify what our Lions program is all about.”